I know what you’re thinking.
Rand al’Thor. Rand al’Thor who was promised to Egwene al’Vere? Rand al’Thor, of whom it was foretold that he would be shared (somewhat problematically) by three different women? Rand al’Thor who very much followed through on that prophecy? That Rand al’Thor? Yes, that’s the one.
While I’m not here to tell you that Rand is queer in either sexual orientation or identity, I still believe that there is an inherent queerness to him worthy of examination, and—at least for queer readers of the series—doing so can enrich the reading experience and highlight how, in most ways, Robert Jordan’s seminal fantasy series was ahead of its time in terms of visibility and accessibility. At least it was and is for me, and I’ll tell you why.
Note: There are some spoilers for The Wheel of Time beyond this point.
There are two steps I must take before I begin: The first is to paint a picture of my relationship with the series. I was born not long before the publication of The Eye of the World—that was in 1990 for those who don’t recall—so for all intents and purposes, up until the series’ end in 2013 with A Memory of Light, this sprawling fantasy series had been weaving its narrative threads throughout my entire life.
My mother was the one who introduced me to The Wheel of Time. A lifelong, voracious reader in general as well as a rabid fantasy fan specifically, she collected the series and displayed the original mass market paperback editions on her shelves. I remember how impressed I was with the sheer size and number of them, and how that number kept growing over the years. I had always been a precocious reader, so each time I passed those shelves, The Wheel of Time sat there, not unlike saidin, calling to me and challenging me.
I also have to mention how captivating the original artwork from Darrell K. Sweet was. Incidentally, I was especially drawn to his illustration of Rand on the cover of A Crown of Swords, which—at eight years old—served as one of the very first portents that I might be gay. In fact, when I was 18 or 19, I went through an ill-conceived phase where I dyed my hair dark red and wore gray contacts.
I graduated from high school in 2007, the year of Robert Jordan’s passing. I wouldn’t presume to equate my feelings regarding his death with the pain his family must have endured; however, it was already inherently a time of transition for me, and his loss shook my sense of permanence, especially considering that he died before completing his work on the series. Thankfully Brandon Sanderson stepped in to finish the work: “There are neither beginnings nor endings to the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.” Jordan’s words—featured at the beginning of each installment—never seemed more appropriate.
I came out to people beyond my innermost circle of friends just after high school, and this leads me to the second step I must take before I begin discussing Rand in earnest: What does queerness mean to me? And what has my personal story of accepting my queerness brought to my interpretation of genre content?
Of course, there are the obvious definitions of queerness, in terms of gender or sexual identity, that are important. Identifying as gay, trans, nonbinary, or wherever you fall on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum can and should be intrinsic to the conversation, especially when discussing our experience in the real world. When it comes to analyzing and understanding a work of fiction, though, a queer reading can mean looking for moments of difference in a text, finding places where we recognize a sense of otherness, as well as characters or ideas that question or challenge the status quo, especially where concepts of masculinity, femininity, and other binaries are concerned. You can see, then, where a character like Rand would be open to such a reading…
In my opinion, when it comes to discussing a bestselling mass market fantasy forged in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the idea of queerness can be broadened to include any sense of otherness—any departure from what’s considered “normal” or typical in the world in which the story takes place. More importantly, it also encompasses the bravery that results from recognizing that otherness in oneself and then unashamedly owning it.
Often this sort of oblique queerness was intentional in older stories. It was a way to include the stories of queer people in pop culture without scaring off a straight demographic that was already terrified or hostile. I don’t think Robert Jordan’s aims were quite so specific or intentional, but it is easy to see—especially when it comes to his treatment of female characters—that Jordan wanted to create fully realized people with agency, fears, and imperfections. In doing so, he blew the genre right open.
We’ve come so far since then. Jordan attempted to address the issues prevalent in genre writing of the era. In the process, he created a few issues of his own, and he certainly could have gone further. Personally, I would have loved to have eventually seen male characters who channeled saidar or female characters who channeled saidin as just one example. Modern readers of the series are right to point out these vestiges of outdated cisnormative and heteronormative ways of viewing the world. However, all these years later, the greatest strength of The Wheel of Time is how malleable its themes and character dynamics are, as well as how accessible the characters themselves remain. This is what has kept my love for the series alive, and turned it into a well of strength that I can draw from when times are hard.
When I received my HIV diagnosis nearly six years ago, it was a time when I questioned everything. I feared for my life, of course, but I also mourned what I thought would be the loss of my future. So many doors seemed closed to me, and so many plans I had for myself no longer seemed possible. There’s nothing quite like a potentially life-ending diagnosis to challenge your entire self-concept. It was a different series, Frank Herbert’s Dune, that I turned to during this period: “Fear is the mind killer,” after all.
Fortunately, HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, and I have access to medicines that keep my immune system healthy. In fact, the virus has been undetectable—a technical term—in my blood stream for over five years. I’m happy, healthy, and in a loving committed relationship. When I was a kid, I never would have said that I wanted to grow up to be gay and HIV positive, but now that I have, I see that everything that I really wanted has still come to pass.
Thanks to these experiences, I feel like I had a leg up on most people when the pandemic started: I’m no stranger to facing the reality that an invisible virus may kill me. This unexpected source of fortitude gave me the emotional bandwidth to check on my friends, and when my best friend of nearly 15 years—someone who had stood by me when I came out and listened to me try to keep the shakiness out of my voice while I revealed my HIV status to him—proposed that we read one book from The Wheel of Time every month and then talk about it, I was all in.
It would be a reread for me, but it had been a long time. It was the first time my friend would be reading the series, though, and our read-along started off as just an excuse to do something together while still abiding by the rules of quarantine. I sensed that my friend, who lives alone, wanted the connection, and if I’m being honest, I did too.
What I didn’t expect was how much of a new experience this re-reading of The Wheel of Time would be for me. I hadn’t read any of the books since coming out, and certainly not since receiving my diagnosis. I had always identified strongly with Rand, but prior to this reading, that connection had more to do with the everyman/hero’s journey archetype etched into the bones of the character.
At the end of The Eye of the World, when Rand and Egwene discuss his newfound ability to channel, I cried. I didn’t expect to. It was a vastly different experience from my first time reading the scene because this time I recognized the conversation. I remembered the conversation I had had with my high school girlfriend when I came out and how a future we had not exactly planned but certainly had expected died in that moment.
Nyneave, who has always been a favorite character of mine, is one of the witnesses of the confrontation between Rand and Ba’alzamon at the end of the same book, and there’s a moment where Jordan writes that she can’t look Rand in the eye after learning that he can channel. It’s a stray sentence, but I immediately thought of the initial fear that we all have before coming out, that people who know us will suddenly think about and treat us differently. To be fair, this is a relatively short and forgivable lapse on Nyneave’s part. Yet there are numerous other characters, namely Aes Sedai from the Red and Black Ajahs, whose singular mission is to gentle or kill Rand simply for being a man who can channel. If this doesn’t sound like a reality a queer person is well familiar with to you, it should.
As true as that sense of danger is, there are also the friends who stand by us, the allies who fight for our rights all around the world, and the family members who assist in those more quiet, personal battles at holidays and family gatherings. I was happy to see that spirit reflected in Moiraine and Lan. Moiraine is willing to throw all caution to the wind and rebel against some of the oldest teachings of her order to protect Rand. My respect for Lan was further bolstered when he went out of his way to mentor Rand at the end of The Eye of the World and into the next book. As the last of the Malkieri and thus an other, an outsider, Lan can be considered queer too in our reading. Why not? Moiraine—who is one of the series’ few explicitly or nearly explicitly queer characters—and Lan are the closest things Rand has to mentors in the early part of the series when he is arguably at his most impressionable. Mentorship for young queer people is so rare and so vital, and should be prized above of all.
Much of the content of The Great Hunt revolves around Perrin and Mat’s reactions to Rand’s newfound status as not only a wielder of saidin but as the Dragon Reborn, a figure all three of them have been taught to fear and revile their whole lives. When Rand hides the Dragon banner given to him by Moiraine, I saw my younger self and laughed at my own foolish attempts to hide who I am when it was as apparent as any emblem. I also recognized internalized homophobia paralleled in Rand’s self-loathing
Beyond that, there is such a deeply rooted shame and stigma that comes along with first learning that you are HIV positive. For those of us whose queerness is accepted by friends and family, that acceptance is often uttered in the same breath as an expression of fear regarding a potential HIV diagnosis. I can only speak for myself, but one of the countless emotions swirling inside me on the day I learned of my status was a feeling of profound disappointment. I was disappointed and ashamed that I had met the fate some of my loved ones feared for me. I was embarrassed that despite all my protests that I would be different, I wasn’t. For me, that’s what a male learning he can channel in the world of The Wheel of Time feels like: a crushing sense that, despite everything, you have fallen into a pit that is society’s worst-case scenario for you. When Rand sees Logain presented as a prisoner in Caemlyn, we receive just an inkling of how nightmarish that scenario truly is. In fact, when Rand learns of his own ability, he becomes fixated on the memory of seeing Logain that day in a way that uniquely resonated with me.
When Mat chooses to stay away from Rand during The Great Hunt out of fear for his own safety, I recognized the fear born from ignorance in the friends I came out to. I recognized the stigma of a positive HIV status here again as well, but this time, I was reminded how that stigma colors the world beyond my own self-perception. Perrin’s journey as a wolfbrother was a welcome juxtaposition: It made me think of the friends I had in high school who had come out as gay or trans later in life, how our identities may not be the same but there is something comforting in our connected queerness. I especially liked how eager Perrin was to defend Rand to Mat.
Rand’s solemn vow to never channel again in that book hit hard, as well. As someone who grew up in a religious household and went to a Catholic high school, there was a time when I thought I could live the life of celibacy that the Catholic Church demands of its gay members. I cringed when Rand channeled in his sleep and accidentally accessed the Portal Stones. Our queerness is so integral to our nature. It is laughable when we try to deny who we are, and only leads to trouble.
In The Dragon Reborn, Rand is almost a supporting character, but some of his most important development occurs in this novel. I related to how Rand chose to run. When I was younger, there were so many times when I wished I could have run away from the whole thing, but much like being ta’veren, being queer is something the pattern weaved for you. You cannot escape it.
I’ve only just begun revisiting The Shadow Rising, but my favorite moment during this reread regarding Rand occurs at the end of The Dragon Reborn. Rand has finally seized Callandor—there’s a joke to be made about The Sword That Cannot Be Touched, but I’ll refrain—and officially declared himself the Dragon Reborn. It is here that Rand becomes unequivocally queer to me—he has not only embraced who he is, but he has the courage to challenge anyone in his way.
As I continue rereading the series, there are so many moments that I am looking forward to. Even without having read it yet, simply recalling Rand’s acceptance into the Aiel and learning his heritage and history reminds me of how empowering it felt to be filled with a sense of belonging to the tapestry of queer history for the first time. Similarly, I cannot wait for Rand to meet Logain in earnest, and Mazrim Taim, as I reflect on the times I’ve met other queer people who had such differences in opinion and perspective despite our obvious similarities.
The scope of the queer community is vast, rightfully so, as it is a kaleidoscope of cultures, histories, social and religious backgrounds, lived experiences and personal anecdotes that is as unique as the pieces that make it up. I eagerly await reading Rand’s enlisting of Logain and Taim in his founding of The Black Tower and formation of the Asha’man. I expect to be afforded a newfound insight into Taim’s queerness, as someone embittered by his experiences, and I expect Logain’s arc to be even more redemptive and triumphant now that I’m able to read him as a queer person who has overcome the worst the world can throw at him. As powerful as Rand is, there would have been no victory if he hadn’t sought strength from his community.
Most of all, I look forward to reaching the point where Rand cleanses the taint from saidin. I long for the days when being part of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t regarded as something unusual, and I hope earnestly for the day when HIV is no longer a looming specter hanging over queer love. I know there’s PrEP, but I’m talking about a cure—a cure that I recognize may only come, like the cleansing, at great cost, but will make the world a better, safer place.
I once had an English teacher say to me, simply, “The more accessible something is, the better it is.” No matter who you are or how you identify, if you’ve read The Wheel of Time, I hope you’ll agree that the accessibility and relatability of Jordan’s characters is the series’ greatest strength, even beyond the specific points I’ve talked about here. And while I don’t expect everyone will agree with me that Rand al’Thor is queer—or even that The Wheel of Time is a great and life-changing series, for that matter—all I can say is that for me, he is, and it is.
Ben Gierhart is a writer and theater artist based in Louisville, KY. He writes everything from essays, plays, articles, comic book scripts and short stories, but if you want even more, check him out on Twitter (@LunarCrescendo)!